Why do so many Germans see Islam as a threat?
Around half of the German population has concerns about Islam, according to a new study on democracy and religious tolerance. But what's the reason behind the negative feeling towards Islam felt by many?
Germans are on the whole tolerant – but not towards Islam. This is shown by a new study published by the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s ‘Religion Monitor’. However, the study found that irrespective of faith, there is wide support for democracy in Germany.
According to the research revealed on Thursday, the majority of German citizens – 87 percent – are open to other world views.
But 52 percent perceives the religion of Islam as a threat. For Germans living in eastern states, the number of people who feel this way – 57 percent – is higher than those in the west of the country where 50 percent view the religion as a threat.
"Obviously many people currently see Islam less as a religion than as a political ideology and therefore exclude it from religious tolerance," said the foundation's religion expert Yasemin El-Menouar. In her view, social debates and media reports in recent years, which often put Islam in a negative light, have contributed to these attitudes.
El-Menouar said there was cause for concern because these fears over Islam can be exploited by far-right populist groups.
According to the "Weltanschauliche Vielfalt und Demokratie" (World View Diversity and Democracy) study, 30 percent of respondents in the east of Germany do not want Muslims as neighbours, compared to 16 percent in the west.
Nationwide, the number of Muslims is estimated at around five million, with 1.5 million living in North Rhine-Westphalia, the largest number in all of Germany's 16 states.
Why do Germans feel this way?
Dresden-based political scientist Werner Patzelt told The Local the reason for the concerns against people who follow Islam can be traced back to Angela Merkel's decision to keep the borders open during the height of the refugee crisis in 2016.
"As a whole, it's because of the immigration politics of Chancellor Merkel back in 2015," he said. "Germany has had a significant Muslim minority for many years which was a Turkish minority, without significant problems. This was something that passed as normal and nothing to worry about."
However, Patzelt said when Merkel made the controversial decision to allow refugees and migrants to enter the country, German attitudes changed.
He said crimes committed by asylum seekers and refugees, such as the cases of sexual assault in Cologne in New Year 2015 "gave reason for widespread worries" which added fuel to the fire.
When it comes to eastern Germany, Patzelt said the region has never experienced significant immigration from Muslim countries before, and many people didn't want it.
Protests, such as the anti-Islam Pegida demonstrations, which started in Dresden in 2014, explicitly called for no Islam immigration into Germany.
A rally organized by Pegida and the AfD held in Chemnitz last year. Photo: DPA
Patzelt said these protests "gave voice to many east Germans who have the same anti-Muslim sentiment".
However, because politicians dismissed these demonstrations, anger grew, said Patzelt.
This partly explains why parties such as Alternative for Germany (AfD) have grown in support, particularly in eastern German regions.
Along with the anti-Islam sentiment, many people also feel strongly against Angela Merkel and the German political elite, which has resulted in polarization across the country.
Not all Islamophobic
Bertelsmann Stiftung's El-Menouar added that reservations over the religion are not the same as Islamophobia.
"Although our study shows quite widespread scepticism about Islam, this is not necessarily synonymous with Islamophobia," said El-Menouar. "Many people express reservations about Islam, but do not derive any political demands or anti-democratic views from it.
"Only a minority of the citizens show a clearly Islamophobic view and demand, for example, to stop the immigration of Muslims."
According to the Religion Monitor, the proportion of people with an Islamophobic attitude has fallen overall in recent years. In 2017 it was 20 percent in Germany, but it has dropped to 13 percent this year.
A 2017 study by the Pew Research Centre found that 29 percent of Germans had a negative view of Muslims in the country – the second lowest after the UK (28 percent) of the 10 European countries where the survey was carried out.
That same survey revealed 69 percent of Italians had an unfavourable view of Muslims in their country.
The analysis also show that people with clearly Islamophobic positions frequently go against not only Muslims, but also other minorities, and are against diversity in many ways.
Broad support for democracy among all religions
According to the study, democratic values and principles receive broad approval among members of the various religions, whether its Judaism, Christianity, Islam or non-religious people. A large majority – 89 percent of the population – consider democracy in Germany to be a good form of government.
The Bertelsmann Stiftung's 'Religion Monitor' examines the international significance of religion for social cohesion. The study was based on representative population surveys carried out in spring this year and data from the research carried out in 2017.